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Do Antidepressants Cause Birth Defects?

Antidepressant use in women during pregnancy and its effects on child outcomes have been well-studied. A study investigated whether a father’s antidepressant use during the conception period is associated with birth defects and negative health outcomes in children.

The rates of antidepressant prescriptions are also on the rise. There has been a lot of research studying the effects of antidepressant use by women during pregnancy on their children; however, there has been very little research on a father’s use of antidepressants and any possible link to birth defects.

Effects of antidepressants negatively impact sperm

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that antidepressants can have a negative effect on sperm. They can potentially cause the destruction of sperm, reduction of sperm concentrations or movement, alter the physical structure of sperm, and increase DNA damage.

Since there have only been a few small studies and cases looking at the effects of antidepressants on sperm, there is some interest in birth outcomes in those born to fathers who were exposed to antidepressants during conception.

An observational prospective cohort study was done by a group of researchers in Sweden that investigated the association of antidepressant use by fathers at conception and the birth outcomes of their children, specifically preterm birth, birth defects, autism, and intellectual disability.

The researchers gathered data from a Swedish national group study database, where a total of 170,508 eligible children were included in the study. The study classified three different paternal antidepressant exposure groups to analyze and compare:

  • Fathers who had antidepressant exposure during the period of conception (defined as four weeks prior to being conceived and the four weeks after).
  • Fathers who had antidepressant exposure during the pregnancy only (i.e. they started an antidepressant four weeks after conception).
  • Fathers who had no antidepressant exposure during the conception period of pregnancy.

The researchers also adjusted for factors that could influence the accuracy of their results, such as the parents’ ages at conception, the parents’ history of mental health, the mother’s use of antidepressants, and socioeconomic status.

Antidepressants during conception 

The study found that there was no association between a father’s antidepressant use during the conception period and any of the birth outcomes when comparing fathers with antidepressant exposure during conception and fathers without any antidepressant exposure.

Similarly, this was the result when compared to paternal antidepressant exposure starting after conception and during pregnancy. The analysis also found that antidepressant exposure during conception had a decreased risk of intellectual disability whereas exposure after conception and during pregnancy had an increased risk of intellectual disability. The researchers propose this observation could indicate that having a mental illness could be a risk factor for intellectual disability in their child as opposed to exposure to the antidepressant itself.

More studies needed

The study’s findings are consistent with the results of previous studies on prevalence rates of birth outcomes, such as autism and intellectual disability. The large population size included in the study and the availability of exposure and outcome data means that the data is applicable to a wider population. However, the researchers note that these results are specific to a Swedish population, and may not apply across all countries, since differences in genetic makeup and cultural upbringing could make a difference.

The study suggests that antidepressant use by fathers during the conception period is not causally associated with an increased risk of birth defects or negative birth outcomes. This information may help with antidepressant treatment decisions during family planning, particularly for fathers-to-be. However, since there is very limited data on this topic, the researchers express the crucial need for further studies to confirm these results.


  1. Viktorin, A., Levine, S. Z., Altemus, M., Reichenberg, A., & Sandin, S. (2018). Paternal use of antidepressants and offspring outcomes in Sweden: Nationwide prospective cohort study. BMJ. doi:10.1136/bmj.k2233

Maggie Leung PharmD
Maggie Leung PharmD
Maggie is a registered pharmacist and has a PharmD from the University of Toronto. She currently works in the pharmacy informatics field as a clinician applications consultant. In her role, she supports the integration and optimization of technology in healthcare. She enjoys learning about the latest in scientific research and sharing that knowledge through her writing for Medical News Bulletin. Maggie is a big dog lover and enjoys traveling and spending time with her friends and family.


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